Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

December 11, 2014


By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Program Leader for Community Development, Purdue Extension and
Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development

Scott Hutcheson works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.


Last week life took me somewhere I had never been before. This particular someplace happened to be located on the other side of the globe. When the possibility of a visit first came up, impressions arose in my mind, creating a sort of loose narrative about what sort of place this might be.

The first image was of Simon, the charming and handsome one-time significant other of a dear friend. I also thought of a couple of their exports that are particular favorites of mine - Syrah wine and merino wool. Images of this place's rugged mountains and vast plains came to mind, as well. I had seen them in 70mm beauty in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. I also remembered the devastating earthquakes from a few years ago and the remarkable tales of the people of Christchurch, New Zealand's resilience and resolve.

I have now come and gone on my trip, and New Zealand's story for me is even deeper and more nuanced. I met some of those resilient folks of Christchurch and left with several new friends. I shared a glass or two of that Syrah with a few of them. I saw those landscapes with my own eyes, even more vivid and breathtaking than on film.

Container Mall in Christchurch, New Zealand
 (photos by Scott Hutcheson/ Purdue University)
​More meaningful still were some of the things that people in Christchurch are doing: operating a "container
mall," an area in the central part of the city where shops have been set up in large shipping containers while the retail district is being rebuilt; the public art created from earthquake rubble, empty lots now transformed into urban gardens; the Student Volunteer Army, an organization made up of thousands of college students who began volunteering in the earthquake clean-up and continue to serve their community.  

While there, I told my New Zealand story to family and friends as I posted photos and made status updates on my Facebook page. Now, I'm telling you, perhaps adding to any impressions you have of New Zealand.

Every place has a story and in my work - economic and community development - I've seen a lot of communities and regions spend a great deal of energy and money on telling their story or building a brand. This is an idea borrowed from industry, of course. The job of marketing and advertising professionals is to construct stories, stories about soft drinks, trucks, smartphones and the like.

Some in industry, however, are sensing that times are changing.

In a new book, True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business, author Ty Montage, says that "storytelling" is out, "storydoing" is what's making good businesses into great businesses. The difference between storytelling and storydoing is a subtle one. Storytelling companies do all the stuff companies have done for a long time, spend lots of money on establishing a brand. Storydoing companies, on the other hand, do things that are "storyworthy" and then let the stories emerge from their customers via social media and word-of-mouth.

This is a notion to which our communities should perhaps pay attention. Every community, be it a neighborhood, city or larger region, has a story or a narrative. In come cases, organizations like convention and visitors bureaus and economic development organizations have attempted to manufacture these stories; in other cases the stories have emerged more organically.

Some communities are happy with their story. Others, not so much. Communities that want to change their narrative may want to embrace this notion of storydoing or doing things that are storyworthy and then let the story emerge. It's really the way it happens anyway. I'm sure New Zealand has spent billions on advertising and branding. In the end, however, its current narrative is being spun from the storyworthy things they are doing in places like Christchurch.

What's your community's story? Do you know? If not, ask around. Better yet, do a little searching on social media like Twitter, YouTube, Yelp or Foursquare. What's going on that's storyworthy? If it's not much, or if you don't like what you see, here's your chance to change the narrative. Go out and do something storyworthy.

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